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Vulvodynia (VVS): Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Reviewed by Dr. Barb DePree, MD

What is Vulvodynia?

Vulvodynia is a complex condition that manifests as chronic pain in the vulvar region - the external part of the female genitalia. This pain, often described as burning, irritation, or rawness, significantly impacts the quality of life for those affected.

Unlike other vulvar conditions that may have identifiable causes or lesions, vulvodynia is characterized by pain without an evident origin or disease, making diagnosis and treatment challenging. Our goal is to delineate vulvodynia from other vulvar conditions, offering insights into its symptoms, potential causes, and management strategies to empower those dealing with this chronic disorder.

What Are the Symptoms of Vulvodynia?

Vulvodynia is characterized by chronic pain or discomfort around the opening of the vagina (the vulva), which includes the labia, clitoris, and vaginal opening. This condition can be distressing and can impact daily activities and quality of life. Understanding the symptoms is crucial for women seeking a diagnosis and relief from this persistent pain.

Primary Symptom: Pain in the Vulva

The hallmark symptom of vulvodynia is pain in the vulva (vulvar pain), which is often described as a burning, stinging, itching, or raw sensation. The pain may be constant or intermittent and can last for months or even years. It is important to note that the pain is not caused by an infection, skin disorder, or other medical condition which can otherwise be identified.

Common Characteristics of Vulvar Pain

  • Burning: Many women report a sensation akin to acid being poured on their skin.

  • Stinging: For some, the pain can be sharp and sporadic, like being pricked with needles.

  • Irritation: Surrounding areas may feel especially tender and sensitive to touch or pressure.

Differentiating Vulvodynia from Other Vaginal Health Concerns

Unlike temporary discomforts caused by infections or skin irritations, vulvodynia does not have visible signs and is not a result of sexually transmitted infections, yeast infections, or other easily identifiable health issues.

It is crucial to consult a healthcare professional to differentiate vulvodynia from other conditions that may cause similar symptoms. Accurate diagnosis often involves ruling out other possible causes of vulvar pain.

Causes and Risk Factors

Vulvodynia is a complex and often misunderstood condition. While the exact cause is not always clear, researchers believe that several factors may contribute to the development of vulvodynia. Understanding these can help in managing the condition more effectively.

Potential Causes of Vulvodynia

  • Sexual Trauma: A history of sexual abuse or trauma may sometimes lead to the development of vulvodynia, as it can cause long-term pelvic floor dysfunction and pain.
  • Muscle or Nerve Damage: Injury or irritation to the nerves in the vulval area, possibly from surgery, childbirth, or other trauma, can lead to chronic pain that characterizes vulvodynia.
  • Hormonal Changes: Fluctuations in hormone levels, particularly estrogen, have been linked to vulvar pain. This might occur during different stages in a woman's life, such as puberty, pregnancy, or menopause.

Risk Factors Associated with Vulvodynia

Identifying risk factors is crucial for both prevention and treatment strategies. Some individuals may be more predisposed to developing vulvodynia due to:

  • Previous Vaginal Infections: Recurring yeast infections or other types of vaginal infections can damage the sensitive tissues and nerves, increasing the risk of vulvar pain.
  • Chronic Irritation: Continuous irritation from activities such as bike riding or wearing tight, non-breathable clothing may initiate or worsen symptoms of vulvodynia.
  • Genetic Factors: There can be a genetic predisposition to pain disorders, making some women more sensitive to pain and therefore more prone to vulvodynia.
  • Immune System Disorders: An overactive immune response has also been suspected in some cases of vulvodynia, which can contribute to inflammation and pain.

Knowing the potential causes and risk factors of vulvodynia is a significant step towards effective management of the condition. With thoughtful attention to these elements, those affected can work alongside healthcare professionals to alleviate symptoms and improve quality of life.

Diagnosis of Vulvodynia

Understanding the process of diagnosis and the common symptoms is crucial in seeking prompt and effective treatment. Here are the crucial steps healthcare providers may follow, and the symptoms that may lead them to a diagnosis of vulvodynia.

Steps in Diagnosing Vulvodynia

The diagnosis of vulvodynia typically begins with a comprehensive medical history and physical examination. The following steps are often included in the process:

  • A thorough discussion of symptoms, including pain onset, duration, and triggers.
  • Medical history review to rule out infections, skin disorders, or other gynecological conditions.
  • A pelvic examination to inspect the vulvar area for signs of other conditions.
  • Cotton swab test to pinpoint pain locations and their intensity.

Diagnostic Tests and Criteria

There are no specific tests that can definitively diagnose vulvodynia. However, the following criteria and procedures aid in its identification:

  • Exclusion of other causes: Tests for infections, skin disorders, and hormonal imbalances can eliminate other potential causes of vulvar pain.
  • Q-tip test: Gently touching various areas of the vulva with a cotton swab to identify sensitive spots.
  • Vulvar biopsy: Rarely needed, but may be performed if skin disorders need to be ruled out.
  • Pelvic floor muscle examination: Assessing for muscle spasms or tension that could contribute to pain.
  • Pain assessment using a standardized measure such as the McGill Pain Questionnaire.

Symptoms of Vulvodynia

Identifying vulvodynia heavily relies on the patient's description of symptoms, which can include:

  • Burning, stinging, or rawness in the vulvar area.
  • Consistent or intermittent pain that can last for several months or more.
  • Pain during intercourse, also referred to as dyspareunia.
  • Discomfort while sitting for extended periods, which can interfere with daily activities.
  • Pain that ranges from mild to severe, and can be localized or widespread across the vulvar area.

Treatment Options for Vulvodynia

Vulvodynia can be challenging to treat due to its multifactorial nature, but several treatment options are available that can alleviate symptoms for many sufferers.

These treatments range from conventional medical approaches to physical therapy and even surgery, depending on the individual's circumstances. It is important to discuss with a healthcare provider to determine the most appropriate treatment plan.

Conventional Medical Treatments

Medications can play an essential role in managing vulvodynia. Some commonly prescribed medications include:

  • Antidepressants: which can help modulate pain.
  • Anticonvulsants: commonly used for nerve pain.
  • Local anesthetics: such as lidocaine, for temporary pain relief.

While medications can provide relief, they may have side effects and may not address the underlying causes of vulvodynia.

The Role of the Pelvic Floor

The pelvic floor muscles can often be a focus in vulvodynia treatment. These muscles can be a source of pain when they are tense or weak. Treatments targeting dysfunction in the pelvic floor may include:

  • Physical therapy: to teach patients how to relax and strengthen pelvic muscles.
  • Biofeedback: to help patients gain awareness and control over pelvic floor muscles.

Specialized physical therapists can guide patients through exercises and strategies aimed at reducing pelvic floor muscle tension and pain.


For some, surgery may be considered, especially when there is a clear, localized source of pain. Procedures like vestibulectomy have been successful for select patients, but surgery is usually seen as a last resort.

Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)

In addition to traditional medicine, many sufferers of vulvodynia explore complementary and alternative medicine approaches including:

  • Acupuncture
  • Chiropractic treatments
  • Dietary changes and nutritional supplements
  • Mindfulness and meditation

While evidence on the efficacy of these treatments is still emerging, they may provide additional relief and improve overall wellbeing.

Impact of Vulvodynia on Sexual Health

Vulvodynia can have profound effects on sexual health and intimate relationships. The condition, characterized by chronic pain around the opening of the vagina, can make sexual activity uncomfortable or even unbearable for those affected. It's important not only to address the physical aspects but also to understand and tackle the emotional and psychological repercussions.

Impact of Vulvodynia on Sexual Activity and Relationships

The discomfort and pain associated with vulvodynia can lead to a decrease in sexual desire and activity. It is not uncommon for those suffering from the condition to avoid sex because of the fear of experiencing pain, which can create tension and strain within a relationship. Partners might feel rejected or helpless, adding to the complexity of the situation.

Strategies for Managing Sexual Health Concerns

  • Open communication: Engaging in an open dialogue with one's partner about the condition can foster understanding and empathy.
  • Lubricants and gels: Using water-based lubricants can help minimize discomfort during sexual activity.
  • Alternate forms of intimacy: Exploring non-penetrative forms of intimacy can maintain physical closeness without causing pain.
  • Medical treatment: Following medical treatments for vulvodynia can also help improve sexual function.

Role of Sexual Counseling or Therapy

Coupled with medical treatments, sexual counseling or sex therapy can be an essential component in managing vulvodynia. Working with a knowledgeable therapist can help individuals and couples navigate the challenges posed by the condition, providing strategies for coping and improving sexual intimacy.

Therapy can also assist in addressing any mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety, that may arise from or contribute to vulvodynia.

Psychological Impact of Vulvodynia

The experience of living with vulvodynia extends far beyond the physical symptoms. Chronic vulvar pain can lead to significant emotional and psychological distress. It is crucial for patients and healthcare providers to recognize the mental health challenges that often accompany vulvodynia.

The Emotional Toll of Chronic Vulvar Pain

Chronic pain can alter your daily life in profound ways. Those suffering from vulvodynia may experience feelings of frustration, sadness, and isolation. The persistent discomfort can overshadow social activities, work, and personal relationships, leading to heightened anxiety and depression.

Common Psychological Symptoms Associated With Chronic Pain

Living with constant pain can trigger a range of psychological symptoms. Individuals with vulvodynia often report:

  • Depression or persistent sad, anxious, or "empty" mood
  • Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
  • Irritability and frustration
  • Decreased interest or pleasure in most activities, including sex
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
  • Changes in sleep patterns, such as insomnia or sleeping too much
  • Decreased energy or fatigue

Resources for Mental Health Support and Counseling

It's imperative for individuals with vulvodynia to seek mental health support as part of their overall treatment plan. Counseling and therapy can offer:

  • A safe space to discuss feelings and experiences related to vulvodynia
  • Strategies to cope with the emotional toll of chronic pain
  • Tools to manage stress, anxiety, and depression
  • Support in rebuilding self-esteem and sexual identity

Complementary and Alternative Treatment for Vulvodynia

Vulvodynia can be a challenging condition to manage, leading many sufferers to explore a variety of treatment options. Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) offers a different approach that can be used alongside conventional medical treatments.

In this section, we'll delve into some CAM treatments specific to vulvodynia and discuss their effectiveness and the research supporting them, providing insight on how to safely incorporate these methods into your management plan.

Review of CAM Treatments for Vulvodynia

Individuals with vulvodynia often turn to CAM treatments seeking relief from their symptoms. Some of the more common CAM therapies include:

  • Acupuncture: This traditional Chinese medicine technique involves inserting thin needles into specific points on the body to alleviate pain and discomfort.
  • Biofeedback: By using sensors that monitor physiological functions, biofeedback helps patients gain control over certain bodily processes that are normally automatic, such as muscle tension and pain perception.

Effectiveness and Research Behind CAM Therapies

While some individuals report relief from vulvodynia symptoms through CAM treatments, the scientific community continues to explore their effectiveness. Acupuncture, for instance, has shown some promising results in pain relief for various conditions, though its role in vulvodynia is less clear.

Biofeedback has been more consistently associated with improvements in pain management, likely due to its focus on muscle relaxation and stress reduction.

Incorporating CAM into Vulvodynia Management Safely

Before integrating any CAM therapy into your vulvodynia treatment plan, it's crucial to discuss your intentions with a healthcare provider knowledgeable about vulvodynia. They can provide guidance on how to blend CAM practices with conventional treatments safely and effectively.

Additionally, it's essential to seek treatment from licensed professionals who are experienced in administering CAM therapies to patients with vulvodynia to ensure the best possible outcomes.

Advances in Vulvodynia Research

Research into vulvodynia is continuously evolving, offering new insights and hope to those affected by this often-debilitating condition. A thorough examination of recent studies sheds light on the potential drivers behind the disorder, while also hinting at innovative approaches for diagnosis and treatment. As we delve into these scientific endeavours, we stand on the cusp of breakthroughs that could revolutionize the way vulvodynia is understood and managed.

Summary of Recent Research Findings on Vulvodynia

Recent research into vulvodynia has explored various dimensions of the condition:

  • Studies into the neurological basis of vulvodynia suggest that nerve fibre proliferation or abnormal nerve activity could be underlying factors contributing to pain.
  • Investigations into the genetic predisposition have uncovered possible links between familial history and the occurrence of vulvodynia, suggesting that genetics may play a role in individual susceptibility.
  • Research on the impact of hormones shows fluctuating hormone levels may exacerbate vulvodynia symptoms, informing the timing and application of treatments.
  • The efficacy of new medications, such as compounded topical moisturizers and creams and neuromodulators, are being assessed, offering potential new avenues for symptom management.

Potential Future Studies and Their Implications for Treatment and Diagnosis

Looking ahead, the following potential studies stand to push the boundaries of vulvodynia research even further:

  • Large-scale clinical trials for emerging pharmaceuticals could establish new standard-of-care options for patients experiencing vulvodynia.
  • Longitudinal research investigating the progression of the condition over time and its response to various treatments, can provide deeper understanding and improve patient outcomes.
  • Neuroimaging studies aim to visualize pain pathways and centres in the brain related to vulvodynia, possibly leading to targeted therapies that directly address the underlying neural mechanisms of pain.
  • Exploration of psychosocial factors promises a more holistic view of vulvodynia, acknowledging the complex interplay between physical symptoms and mental health.


Throughout our comprehensive exploration of vulvodynia, we've uncovered the essence of this complex condition, from identifying its hallmark symptoms to discussing the myriad of available treatment options. We've delved into the potential causes and risk factors, the importance of accurate diagnosis, and the crucial role of support systems and resources in managing vulvodynia's multifaceted impact.

The sexual health implications and psychological impact of vulvodynia cannot be overstated, and our discussion has emphasized the need for a compassionate, holistic approach to care. We've also shed light on the potential benefits of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM), as well as the promising avenues that current research and studies are paving for the future of vulvodynia treatment.

It's important to remember that if you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms akin to vulvodynia, seeking professional medical advice is paramount. Each individual's experience with vulvodynia is unique, and a healthcare provider can tailor a treatment plan that addresses specific needs and improves quality of life.

Please note: This content is intended for educational purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice.